Opinion

Why Women in the Wine Industry Stay Silent About Abuse

An industry veteran examines the structures that she says are keeping victims quiet—and provides a framework for moving forward

Amy Bess Cook
Amy Bess Cook. Photo by Nicole McConville.

“Is there a Harvey Weinstein of wine?” When Karen MacNeil, the president of Karen MacNeil & Company in St. Helena, California, and the author of The Wine Bible, first posed this question on Twitter nearly two years ago, I expected more than a few nominations. According to a 2018 survey by the London-based organization Unite the Union, 89 percent of hospitality workers and 80 percent of female agricultural workers report on-the-job sexual harassment, statistics that don’t even include other forms of power abuse. But the response to MacNeil’s post was minimal. 

Most professions—from engineering to entertainment—have boldly reckoned with power abuse in recent years, sexual and otherwise. Since late 2017, the restaurant industry has also begun to publicly acknowledge power abuses within its ranks. Yet in the wine world, silence lingers. Let’s be clear—it’s not because we’re especially well behaved. Something is keeping victims in the wine business strangely quiet, and we have a duty to ascertain what it is.

Last year, in a rare exception, 20 employees accused Canadian vintner Norman Hardie of making sexual advances on the job. He publicly apologized, then not only kept his post but soon had his wines restocked by the Liquor Control Board of Ontario. According to The Globe and Mail, a Canadian newspaper, his accusers received no amends. 

This points to one reason women don’t speak up: It often seems no one is listening. Men own the vast majority of wine businesses—just 4 percent of California wineries are owned by women, for example—so there is a significant disparity when it comes to female representation in company leadership. This can put a female employee at a great disadvantage when she expresses certain complaints. 

But there are other reasons workers in the wine business don’t speak up. An inquiry into this topic, and a willingness to listen—really listen—to the responses, might just yield a healthier, safer work culture for us all.

Raising Our Voices

In March, I joined colleagues at the Wonder Women of Wine (WWOW) conference in Austin, Texas. Day one was a whirlwind: Speakers such as MacNeil and Cathy Corison offered a sense of the progress women have made in the industry, while winemakers like Martha Stoumen, Rae Wilson, and Krista Scruggs wove in perspectives on class, geography, and race. Then a final speaker stepped onstage: The New York Citybased sommelier Victoria James took the mic and relayed her story of workplace sexual assault and retaliation. 

I wasn’t able to hear her full speech. I too have been subject to abuse within the industry, and although James’s story was quite different from mine, it echoed my experience enough to unravel me. Intent on keeping my composure, I ducked out of the assembly. Later, surveying the room from a doorway, I saw a sea of faces that clearly showed I hadn’t been the only woman so deeply affected.  

James, whose related memoir, Wine Girl, is due out next spring from Ecco Press, then invited audience members to stand and relate their own experiences with abuse in the wine world. I bit my tongue while colleagues bravely rose and testified. At last, here was acknowledgement of the violence and power abuse that occurs in our industry. I thought, “If only we had such open communication in the everyday workplace.”

Industry professionals gather at the Woman-Owned Wineries fundraiser. From left: Gender equality and feminist psychology researcher Lucia Gilbert, winemakers Shauna Rosenblum of Rock Wall Wine Co. and Katy Wilson of LaRue Wines, founder of Woman-Owned Wineries Amy Bess Cook, vineyard manager Brenae Royal of Monte Rosso Vineyard, and winemaker Jennifer Reichardt of Raft Wines. Photo courtesy of Amy Bess Cook.

As the founder of Woman-Owned Wineries, an advocacy project that includes a nationwide winery directory, storytelling endeavor, and wine club, I’ve dedicated nearly two years to researching and promoting female wine entrepreneurs. I launched the project after nearly a decade of working with a range of wineries, vendors, and independent wine professionals. Amid these dealings, I encountered persistent power abuse that touched every aspect of my life. My repeated attempts to seek help were met with derision, stonewalling, and—ultimately—retaliation. 

At the time, the entire saga was deeply and utterly isolating. Later, as the #MeToo era began unfolding, women from across many professional fields offered testimony that showed me I was not alone—not even close. I began to more closely examine the well-obscured suffering in our workforce. And I began to think, “Maybe—maybe—I  can do something about this.” Rather than outing my offender and detailing his corruption, I have chosen to address the broken system that enabled him. 

The Reality of Risk

Lauren Friel is the owner of Rebel Rebel, the acclaimed natural-wine bar in Somerville, Massachusetts, just outside Boston. She has written about her own experiences of previous workplace abuse and harnessed insight from them to inform the way she manages her business. For example, she invites consultants to conduct seminars to enhance staff awareness of equity concerns. Rebel Rebel also maintains a policy in which employees have the right to eject offending customers from the bar at any time to ensure a safe work environment. 

Friel chose to disclose her own story publicly, but she acknowledges that this strategy is not right for everyone. “We should be taken seriously,” she says, “without having to expose some of the most traumatic events that we’ve survived.”

While women need not feel obligated to speak out against abusive behavior, we deserve to feel safe if we do choose to speak about the experience. That isn’t the reality. Women’s stories—like those of other marginalized people—are often told at substantial risk. At the conference, James carefully read her speech from a prepared document and intermittently joked about the critical gaze of her lawyer, who sat in the third row.  

Reflecting on the topic more recently, James expresses keen awareness of the threat of retaliation. “The backlash isn’t always as black-and-white as losing your job, or getting your hours cut,” says James. “A cloud of judgment and cruelty can be heaped upon women for coming forward. Women risk [not] being taken seriously—being sexualized, belittled, and passed over for many opportunities and jobs.” 

These are not risks that every woman can afford to take. Still, by continuing the conversation, we can help heal our workforce. “The most impactful thing we can do,” says Friel, “is to just make conversation … We need to get better at talking about everyday abuse so that we have a familiarity, a comfort, and a language for dealing with these things every day. Because they do happen every day.” 

Hope Ewing. Photo courtesy of Amy Bess Cook.

Drawing the Line

Wine is an inherently social business that relies on close connections to thrive. To ensure that that connectivity is harnessed for good, it’s important for our work relationships to be ethical.

Wines & Vines reports that more than 8,000 of the more than 10,000 wineries in the United States are “very small,” producing under 5,000 cases annually, or “limited production,” producing under 1,000 cases. These wineries are typically staffed by skeleton crews of part-time and seasonal employees. Formal labor policy is often not in place, and hierarchy and protocol can get fuzzy. These businesses can harbor some of the most egregious personnel violations—with little opportunity for recourse.

“The wine community is even smaller than the restaurant community,” says Friel. “Any time you have a really small community, you have the insularity that accompanies that”—which, she says, can be dangerous.

No matter the size of the company, identifying boundaries is crucial. Julie M. Lacy, an employment attorney based in Berkeley, California—who also attended the WWOW conference—emphasizes the importance of companies taking clear initiative on policy. 

Companies must set the tone from the top,” she says, “and train their employees at the time of hire—and during employment—about the company’s commitment to providing a safe workplace free from harassment and discrimination. That should include training supervisory employees on how to avoid engaging in conduct that could violate company policyand the law—but it also must include educating employees on the complaint procedure.

Hospitality activist Ashtin Berry, who is based in New Orleans, cofounded the creative agency Radical Xchange, with the vision of creating “equitable spaces for everyone.” Berry also emphasizes that it’s the responsibility of management to take a strong lead. “The lack of explicit communication about behavior and engagement in general in the workspace,” she says, “is what lays the foundation for spaces to become abusive.” 

Berry stresses that any formal methods offered to employees must be supplemented with plenty of dialogue. “It’s not enough to tell people to respect each other,” she says, “because respect is subjective. It’s also not enough to have broad legal terms in a handbook about extreme behaviors when there have been no conversations about the behaviors that lead to assault and harassment.” She adds that abuse is something that’s practiced. “Abusers can only become better practitioners of abuse [when they have] the freedom to do so. That freedom is cosigned by businesses that do not have preventive care models.”



Exploited Trust

Many jobs in the drinks business—from production to service—are learned under the tutelage of a mentor. This leads to trusting, highly bonded relationships that, in the case of unscrupulous leadership, can easily cross over into exploitation.

Hope Ewing, a bartender and entrepreneur based in Los Angeles, and the author of Movers & Shakers: Women Making Waves in Spirits, Beer, and Wine, points out that apprenticeship can bring with it potential perils. When trust is broken and workers are compelled to either confront or report their superiors, they not only contend with backlash, but with guilt, as well. “People self-silence,” Ewing says, “because their abusers might also have helped their careers along at some point—or those of their close friends. This is not only deeply confusing on its own—He’s not all bad! What if no one believes me?—but throw in the fact that we’re surrounded by alcohol and all the stigma that still comes with it, and you’ve got a hothouse of shame and denial.”

When faced with inappropriate propositions or requests, employees might be left hamstrung by the sense that they are replaceable, a feeling that can increase their willingness to tolerate offenses. That is especially true in the wine world. “It’s historically been a very prestige-oriented industry,” says Friel, “meaning that you follow a codified set of rules and behavior to become a member of the accepted elites. The chances of you succeeding are slim to none if you don’t support the behavior of those who are at the top.”

Accommodating Others 

In the drinks business, we excel at taking care of people. Accommodating others is our superpower—until it’s our downfall. 

“Emotional labor” is a term that was popularized by the sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild in her 1983 book, The Managed Heart. In Hochschild’s analysis, emotional labor referred to the managing of emotions to make others comfortable, a function that women are often socialized to practice. Hospitality workers are frequently on the front lines of such work, and the job of caring for customers can come with fear and uncertainty about drawing boundaries.

Berry, who has a background in sociology, has done ample research on emotional labor. “Emotional labor is not transparently recognized within hospitality spaces,” she says. “When labor goes unrecognized, it becomes invisible and therefore [so do] the contributions of the person doing the labor.” 

This lack of recognition can often set the stage for transgressions. Let’s say, for example, that a tasting room associate dutifully helps a winemaker host a group of sales reps. One rep mistakes the associate’s generous dispositionwhich is part of her job descriptionfor flirting. He takes her phone number from her business card and starts firing off inappropriate texts and photos. The winery’s sales may now be affected by how she responds. 

In this hypothetical but all-too-familiar example, the tasting room associate is a far easier mark than the winemaker. She represents a broad class of workers who make less money and wield less power than executives or business owners, while under pressure to provide emotional labor. 

“Emotional labor is tied to power structures,” says Berry, “and it is overwhelmingly asked of those already systemically marginalized.” Race, class, gender, and other factors figure heavily. Because those in power are typically less affected, recognition of the problem and remedies can be hard to come by. 

As we wine professionals strive to create hospitable experiences for guests and colleagues alike, our knack for accommodating others may leave us vulnerable to those with ill intentions. Staying aware of the way we present ourselves and the energy we give at our workplace, and carefully guarding our boundaries, demands vigilance.

Berry points out that “companies that would like to better support their staff, in general, can … start by acknowledging that emotional labor exists.” Tackling such a nuanced topic, she says, “requires really healthy communication structures within businesses.” Leaders who lack the skills to build those structures, or who just need extra support, are encouraged to hire a consultant who can facilitate the necessary conversations.

Moving Forward

On the final day of the WWOW conference, I sat on a panel focused on entrepreneurship. Amid the discussion, an audience member rose and asked urgently, “What do we do with our grief?” She was referring to the burden of abuse borne by so many of us present. “How do we keep working,” she said, “while we are forced to carry such grief?”

There was no clear answer. Still, together we held space for the pain and complexity of her question. As a survivor, I found this transformative. So often, wine professionals are trained to smile and bypass uncomfortable topics. My colleagues were, in that moment, brave and generous enough to dig into the undercurrents. 

Amy Bess Cook gathers fruit samples for harvest season in Carneros. Photo courtesy of Amy Bess Cook.

Our field comes with occupational hazards. It can be a highly insular world where unhealthy relationships form—often under the influence of alcohol—amid grossly imbalanced power dynamics. People can be hurt, badly, often in ways that are invisible to those around them. 

At the same time, the wine business offers the opportunity to forge uncommon community. Even as we demand accountability at the top, each and every one of us is called to build this community with the simple act of checking in on comrades, asking questions like, “How are you?,” “Are you okay?,” and “Can I help?” As we do, we must vow to take seriously the responses we get.

“Listen to women, listen to minorities, listen to the stories of all people,” advises James. “Take them seriously, document them, investigate and set up protocols to make the work environment a safe and happy one. I hope the biggest change we see industry-wide is [that] those in power listen more and act as protectors.”

Amy Bess Cook is the founder of Woman-Owned Wineries, a site intended to identify and elevate female-identifying wine entrepreneurs. Her efforts to spur positive change in the drinks business have been featured in Forbes and Imbibe, and she has published her work in a range of beverage and literary publications. Follow her here.

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